The Journalist and the Murderer

by Janet Malcolm

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Critical Overview

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‘‘Reflections: The Journalist and the Murderer’’ first appeared as a two-part article in the pages of the New Yorker in 1989. The book, with its added afterword (initially published in the New York Review of Books), was published the following year. Malcolm’s article stunned the journalistic community in its portrayal of the journalist as ‘‘a kind of confi- dence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.’’ Craig Seligman, who later wrote in his article ‘‘Brilliant Careers’’ in Salon about the experience of reading the article for the first time, held a distinctly minority opinion:

Reading Malcolm’s cool, considered, perfect prose, I knew I was in the presence of genius, and the weeklong wait for the second installment was a torment that only picking up the phone and calling friends who were going through the same thing could relieve.

But Seligman is aware that he is in the minority: ‘‘This was not, however, the reaction of Malcolm’s fellow journalists—to put it mildly.’’

Even before publication in book form, the article drew immediate criticism from reviewers. In Seligman’s words, they were split ‘‘between puzzled indignation and defensive fury.’’ Faultfinders pointed out that, despite an incident at the heart of the issue—the MacDonald-McGinniss lawsuit— Malcolm never mentioned the libel suit lodged against her by Jeffrey Masson. Malcolm responded to such criticism in the book’s afterword. In this short essay, Malcolm denied that the work was ‘‘a thinly veiled account of my own experiences,’’ but she also alluded to the transference of feelings between the writer and the subject. ‘‘The characters of nonfiction . . . derive from the writer’s most idiosyncratic desires and deepest anxieties; they are what the writer wishes he was and worries that he is.’’

Malcolm’s declarations, however, did little to appease her critics. As Catharine R. Stimpson pointed out in the Nation, this experience must have given her ‘‘some expertise and authority,’’ at a bare minimum, enough to realize that ignoring her own libel suit left her open to greater scrutiny. Even Malcolm’s supporter, Seligman, fully believed that The Journalist and the Murderer was a ‘‘brilliant solution to [Malcolm’s] obvious impulse toward autobiography: Talking about McGinniss and MacDonald was an oblique and tactful way of talking about Malcolm and Masson.’’ Upon reading the afterword in the published book, Seligman dubbed it ‘‘self-deceiving.’’

Fred Bruning, writing in Maclean’s, further objected to the ‘‘shared guilt’’ that Malcolm inflicts on all journalists. There is a difference, he maintained, between practicing reporters and ‘‘celebrity writers,’’ like McGinniss and Malcolm. Bruning contended that Malcolm’s argument was unrealistic; reporters simply did not have the time to indulge in such elaborate ‘‘high-stakes games’’ as those described in The Journalist and the Murderer. Stimpson lodged another complaint against Malcolm: ‘‘Malcolm masculinizes the act of writing. . . . her tone-deafness about gender blunts her ability to hear and tell a story.’’

J. Anthony Lukas, a writer for Washington Monthly was one of Malcolm’s most forceful critics. He called The Journalist and the Murderer ‘‘a work of inspired quackery.’’ In his article Lukas examined Malcolm’s background as a reporter and concluded that ‘‘for her, the relationship between reporter and subject is another version of therapist and patient.’’ Lukas also mocked Malcolm’s defense in the afterword as weak and unconvincing. Like Bruning, he rebelled against Malcolm’s equation of all reporters as masters of ‘‘seduction and betrayal.’’ (Lukas, it must be pointed out, was a long-time friend of the Malcolm-maligned McGinniss.)

Aside from Seligman, who lauded the book as ‘‘a masterpiece,’’ other journalists did have praise for...

(This entire section contains 713 words.)

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Malcolm’s work. Stimpson called it a ‘‘spare, lucid, clever book.’’ Fred Friendly of theNew York Times Book Review acknowledged that although Malcolm’s work would offend anyone who believed that criticism of journalistic freedom is an attack on the First Amendment, her inquiry ‘‘no matter if exaggerated, should force all of us in the news business to re-examine our methods and manners.’’ Even Lukas conceded that the book and Malcolm both have their strengths. Malcolm’s ‘‘outsider perspective enables [her] to plumb ironies that might be missed by workaday reporters.’’ Her work, he wrote, ‘‘bristles with acute intelligence’’ and includes ‘‘some fine glancing insights.’’

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